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Frequent flier fallacies

Four misconceptions about the miles you've been earning, and what they could be costing you.
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More than 25 years after the airlines created frequent flier programs, there are three things we can confidently say about them: They are the most intriguing thing business travelers deal with on the road. They are the most frustrating thing business travelers deal with on the road.

And the third thing? Everything you think you know about frequent flier programs is wrong. Even the name “frequent flier program” is misleading. And every misperception you embrace helps the airlines beat you at the game.

Frequent flier programs are not loyalty programs
Regardless of how they began, frequent flier programs today are multichannel marketing vehicles designed to sell you things: credit cards, phones, groceries, mortgages, investment funds, flowers, hotel rooms, car rentals, and, of course, airline tickets. More important, frequent flier programs attempt to change your buying patterns and sell you products and services at prices higher than you otherwise would pay. The airlines are paid for every mile their marketing sponsors award when you buy something, and the cost of those miles is rolled into the price you pay.

One glaring example: “affinity” credit cards tied to the frequent flier programs. The basic American AAdvantage MasterCard issued by Citibank carries an annual fee of $50, the interest rate on purchases is more than 17 percent, and the cash advance rate is north of 22 percent. All of those charges are substantially higher than those of similar credit cards that don’t offer miles.

How do you beat the airlines at the game? Never buy something just to get miles. Don’t switch brands just to get miles. Don’t pay a higher price for an item and rationalize it by saying the miles you receive have value. The miles are never worth the extra dollars you pay.

Frequent flier programs are not banks
Too many business travelers “bank” miles, waiting for a day when they can take a dream vacation. But airlines do not pay interest on miles you hoard in your account. Worse, you could fall victim to frequent flier award inflation — there is no guarantee that the airlines won’t increase the price of awards while you’re saving up. For example: Continental Airlines last month announced a wide-ranging increase in the price of its best awards. The number of miles required to get a free first-class domestic ticket rose about 11 percent; the cost in miles for some international business-class seats rose by 25 percent.

Frequent flier programs aren’t retirement accounts, either. If you’re storing up miles for that glorious day when you’ll ditch the 9-to-5 routine and fly into retirement and the sunset, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. Your miles will be worth dramatically less. One bitter example: When the programs started in 1981, the going rate for two first-class tickets to Hawaii was 75,000 miles. Today, it is about 380,000 miles.

How do you beat the airlines at the game? You can’t. But you can limit the devaluation of your miles by claiming awards as soon as possible after you earn them.

Frequent flier miles are not currency
For years, airline executives, third-party mileage strategists, and even chattering-class columnists like me claimed that frequent flier miles were the nation’s “second currency.” Well, guess what. Miles ain’t currency — at least not in any sense that businesspeople can recognize.

Airlines have complete power over the value of your miles, your ability to earn them, your power to use them, and your right to trade, sell, or give them to other people. No government agency regulates frequent flier plans, and the airlines have almost always prevailed in court cases concerning miles. If you must compare miles to something, consider them scrip issued by a company store. They can be used only within the narrow strictures established by the company, they are not liquid, and they cannot be exchanged for cash.

Airlines also seem hell-bent on destroying the value of their scrip. Next month, for instance, Delta Air Lines will become the fourth of the seven largest U.S. airlines to tell passengers that there are seats they can never claim as an award regardless of the number of miles they’re willing to pay. (Northwest, U.S. Airways, and Southwest Airlines also restrict their awards in some manner.) What are frequent flier miles worth if there are times when even the creator of the scrip will not accept them as payment?

In their heyday 15 years ago, frequent flier programs were a relatively fair, comparatively free, and generally liquid marketplace. Airlines gave you miles in exchange for doing business with them and their partners. You were able to exchange those miles for two types of merchandise: “restricted” awards for seats on off-peak days and times, or “unrestricted” awards that usually cost twice as many miles but guaranteed you a seat whenever and wherever the airline flew. But airlines have essentially turned frequent flier programs into unregulated lotteries: You never know when — or even if — you can use the miles for airline seats.

Frequent flier programs are not the only game in town
Experts claim that there are about 10 trillion outstanding frequent flier miles and that the airlines continue to pay out millions of award seats each year. But for the most experienced business travelers, frequent flier programs are passé. It’s simply too difficult or too costly to claim the best awards, such as premium-class seats to Hawaii and the Caribbean and international first- and business-class seats during holiday-travel periods.

Smart travelers have begun to look elsewhere. Major hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, and InterContinental offer more rewarding and less restrictive frequent guest programs. Besides, business travelers have learned that when it comes to a fabulous family vacation, lodging often costs more than airfare. Another good contender: Membership Rewards from American Express. It offers a wide range of travel benefits and easy-to-value merchandise awards like gift cards at major retailers.

The fine print
Here’s one more nasty devaluation of the frequent flier programs: During the past year, all of the major carriers have slapped expiration dates on their miles. If you don’t do business with the airline or one of its partners in 18 to 36 months, the airline will simply confiscate the miles you’ve already earned and “zero out” your account balance.